A PLEA FOR CAPTAIN JOHN BROWN
A PLEA FOR CAPTAIN JOHN BROWN
HENRY DAVID THOREAU.
by Henry David Thoreau
[Read to the citizens of Concord Mass. Sunday Evening October 30 1859.]
I trust that you will pardon me for being here. I do not wish to
force my thoughts upon you but I feel forced myself. Little as I
know of Captain Brown I would fain do my part to correct the tone
and the statements of the newspapers and of my countrymen generally
respecting his character and actions. It costs us nothing to be
just. We can at least express our sympathy with and admiration
of him and his companions and that is what I now propose to do.
First as to his history. I will endeavor to omit as much
as possible what you have already read. I need not describe his
person to you for probably most of you have seen and will not
soon forget him. I am told that his grandfather John Brown was an
officer in the Revolution; that he himself was born in Connecticut
about the beginning of this century but early went with his
father to Ohio. I heard him say that his father was a contractor
who furnished beef to the army there in the war of 1812; that he
accompanied him to the camp and assisted him in that employment
seeing a good deal of military life--more perhaps than if he
had been a soldier; for he was often present at the councils of
the officers. Especially he learned by experience how armies are
supplied and maintained in the field--a work which he observed
requires at least as much experience and skill as to lead them in
battle. He said that few persons had any conception of the cost
even the pecuniary cost of firing a single bullet in war. He saw
enough at any rate to disgust him with a military life; indeed
to excite in his a great abhorrence of it; so much so that though
he was tempted by the offer of some petty office in the army when
he was about eighteen he not only declined that but he also refused
to train when warned and was fined for it. He then resolved that
he would never have anything to do with any war unless it were a
war for liberty.
When the troubles in Kansas began he sent several of his sons
thither to strengthen the party of the Free State men fitting them
out with such weapons as he had; telling them that if the troubles
should increase and there should be need of his he would follow
to assist them with his hand and counsel. This as you all know
he soon after did; and it was through his agency far more than
any other's that Kansas was made free.
For a part of his life he was a surveyor and at one time he was
engaged in wool-growing and he went to Europe as an agent about
that business. There as everywhere he had his eyes about him
and made many original observations. He said for instance that
he saw why the soil of England was so rich and that of Germany
(I think it was) so poor and he thought of writing to some of the
crowned heads about it. It was because in England the peasantry
live on the soil which they cultivate but in Germany they are
gathered into villages at night. It is a pity that he did not
make a book of his observations.
I should say that he was an old-fashioned man in respect for the
Constitution and his faith in the permanence of this Union. Slavery
he deemed to be wholly opposed to these and he was its determined
He was by descent and birth a New England farmer a man of great
common-sense deliberate and practical as that class is and tenfold
more so. He was like the best of those who stood at Concord Bridge
once on Lexington Common and on Bunker Hill only he was firmer
and higher principled than any that I have chanced to hear of as
there. It was no abolition lecturer that converted him. Ethan
Allen and Stark with whom he may in some respects be compared were
rangers in a lower and less important field. They could bravely
face their country's foes but he had the courage to face his country
herself when she was in the wrong. A Western writer says to
account for his escape from so many perils that he was concealed
under a "rural exterior"; as if in that prairie land a hero
should by good rights wear a citizen's dress only.
He did not go to the college called Harvard good old Alma Mater
as she is. He was not fed on the pap that is there furnished. As
he phrased it "I know no more of grammar than one of your calves."
But he went to the great university of the West where he sedulously
pursued the study of Liberty for which he had early betrayed a
fondness and having taken many degrees he finally commenced the
public practice of Humanity in Kansas as you all know. Such were
his humanities and not any study of grammar. He would have left a
Greek accent slanting the wrong way and righted up a falling man.
He was one of that class of whom we hear a great deal but for
the most part see nothing at all--the Puritans. It would be in
vain to kill him. He died lately in the time of Cromwell but he
reappeared here. Why should he not? Some of the Puritan stock
are said to have come over and settled in New England. They were
a class that did something else than celebrate their forefathers'
day and eat parched corn in remembrance of that time. They
were neither Democrats nor Republicans but men of simple habits
straightforward prayerful; not thinking much of rulers who did not
fear God not making many compromises nor seeking after available
"In his camp" as one has recently written and as I have myself
heard him state "he permitted no profanity; no man of loose morals
was suffered to remain there unless indeed as a prisoner of war.
'I would rather' said he 'have the small-pox yellow-fever and
cholera all together in my camp than a man without principle....
It is a mistake sir that our people make when they think that
bullies are the best fighters or that they are the fit men to oppose
these Southerners. Give me men of good principles--God-fearing
men--men who respect themselves and with a dozen of them I will
oppose any hundred such men as these Buford ruffians.'" He said
that if one offered himself to be a soldier under him who was
forward to tell what he could or would do if he could only get
sight of the enemy he had but little confidence in him.
He was never able to find more than a score or so of recruits whom
he would accept and only about a dozen among them his sons in
whom he had perfect faith. When he was here some years ago he
showed to a few a little manuscript book--his "orderly book" I
think he called it--containing the names of his company in Kansas
and the rules by which they bound themselves; and he stated that
several of them had already sealed the contract with their blood.
When some one remarked that with the addition of a chaplain it
would have been a perfect Cromwellian troop he observed that he
would have been glad to add a chaplain to the list if he could have
found one who could fill that office worthily. It is easy enough
to find one for the United States army. I believe that he had
prayers in his camp morning and evening nevertheless.
He was a man of Spartan habits and at sixty was scrupulous about
his diet at your table excusing himself by saying that he must
eat sparingly and fare hard as became a soldier or one who was
fitting himself for difficult enterprises a life of exposure.
A man of rare common-sense and directness of speech as of action;
a transcendentalist above all a man of ideas and principles--that
was what distinguished him. Not yielding to a whim or transient
impulse but carrying out the purpose of a life. I noticed that he
did not overstate anything but spoke within bounds. I remember
particularly how in his speech here he referred to what his
family had suffered in Kansas without ever giving the least vent
to his pent-up fire. It was a volcano with an ordinary chimney-flue.
Also referring to the deeds of certain Border Ruffians he said
rapidly paring away his speech like an experienced soldier
keeping a reserve of force and meaning "They had a perfect right
to be hung." He was not in the least a rhetorician was not talking
to Buncombe or his constituents anywhere had no need to invent
anything but to tell the simple truth and communicate his own
resolution; therefore he appeared incomparably strong and eloquence
in Congress and elsewhere seemed to me at a discount. It was like
the speeches of Cromwell compared with those of an ordinary king.
As for his tact and prudence I will merely say that at a time
when scarcely a man from the Free States was able to reach Kansas
by any direct route at least without having his arms taken from
him he carrying what imperfect guns and other weapons he could
collect openly and slowly drove an ox-cart through Missouri
apparently in the capacity of a surveyor with his surveying compass
exposed in it and so passed unsuspected and had ample opportunity
to learn the designs of the enemy. For some time after his arrival
he still followed the same profession. When for instance he saw
a knot of the ruffians on the prairie discussing of course the
single topic which then occupied their minds he would perhaps
take his compass and one of his sons and proceed to run an
imaginary line right through the very spot on which that conclave
had assembled and when he came up to them he would naturally
pause and have some talk with them learning their news and at
last all their plans perfectly; and having thus completed his real
survey he would resume his imaginary one and run on his line till
he was out of sight.
When I expressed surprise that he could live in Kansas at all
with a price set upon his head and so large a number including
the authorities exasperated against him he accounted for it by
saying "It is perfectly well understood that I will not be taken."
Much of the time for some years he has had to skulk in swamps
suffering from poverty and from sickness which was the consequence
of exposure befriended only by Indians and a few whites. But
though it might be known that he was lurking in a particular swamp
his foes commonly did not care to go in after him. He could even
come out into a town where there were more Border Ruffians than
Free State men and transact some business without delaying long
and yet not be molested; for said he "No little handful of men
were willing to undertake it and a large body could not be got
together in season."
As for his recent failure we do not know the facts about it. It
was evidently far from being a wild and desperate attempt. His
enemy Mr. Vallandigham is compelled to say that "it was among
the best planned executed conspiracies that ever failed."
Not to mention his other successes was it a failure or did it
show a want of good management to deliver from bondage a dozen
human beings and walk off with them by broad daylight for weeks
if not months at a leisurely pace through one State after another
for half the length of the North conspicuous to all parties with
a price set upon his head going into a court-room on his way and
telling what he had done thus convincing Missouri that it was not
profitable to try to hold slaves in his neighborhood?--and this
not because the government menials were lenient but because they
were afraid of him.